Not long ago, I found myself walking with a small team of missionaries along the rubble-filled streets of Mathare, the second largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, with a population of more than half-million people. We stepped over ditches filled with raw sewage and held hands as we walked to the homes of students who attend Patmos Junior School, a miracle made of mud, sticks, and rusted metal that offers an education to children who long for brighter days. A bag of groceries seemed so insignificant a gift for the mothers who rise before dawn to quilt together scraps of care for their little ones. I truly felt the claustrophobic weight of the underbelly of oppression that rests heavily on the chests of the vulnerable. Like hope and faith, oppression has heft and substance. It clings to those it marks, and it delights in the gravitational pull. If you listen closely, you can hear its voice.
“Just give up.”
And yet, hope is very much alive in the lives of women I’ve worked with around the world, who believe restoration is possible. It is unlike any hope I’ve seen—or maybe it’s the true version of hope that I’ve attempted to sanitize in my pristine world where problems are met with well-ordered solutions that rarely stand the test of time. This hope is gritty and raw and needs no crystalline spit-polishing or special programs to do its work. This hope—a hope that can bear the weight—is like a garden hose after long days of digging in dirt. Sun-warmed and faucet cool, it refreshes and restores while we are yet on our knees. It requires only that we drink it in.
Corazon carefully maneuvered the streets with the team and me. She’s a social worker who walked away from the conveniences of a clinic to embrace splintered benches in the corrugated metal shanty school. I watched the resolve in her steps and listened to the gentle way she spoke to every person she met, even the ones sitting in the shadows who were less than welcoming.
“How do you not let the weight of the battle crush you here?” I asked.
She smiled and said, “I believe the children deserve a chance, and I can do nothing without Jesus Christ. It is all him.”
I thought perhaps the weight would be lifted when we then traveled from Nairobi to Bungoma County, a remote part of Kenya that offers green space and farmland for the poor to raise some chickens and plant a small garden. Elizabeth would be waiting for me there. A seasoned counselor who moved from Uganda to the small village with a passion to strengthen families, I had been with her when she visited her first homes and mapped out her plans. “I feel alive here,” she said back then. “I have ideas—I will get to know the families, and the lifestyle of this community will change.”
But, on this visit, her eyes were more knowing, her words more prophetic.
“Change is coming, and it will come,” Elizabeth said, her small office now wallpapered with homemade posters defining rape and abuse, and outlining how predators—often family members—captivate their prey. “Change comes more slowly than we ever desire, and with greater speed than we can imagine. Change is coming. God is here with me.”
I used to think every problem could be solved with tidy alliterative bullet points and a bold platform from which to speak. But, the women I’ve met have taught me that every need met reveals a deeper need, every answered prayer is but a new prayer’s beginning. There is not one who believes she is fully qualified—and yet all are resolute. They see the depth and magnitude of the battle; they are bruised and broken and choked by the smoke, and yet they keep fighting with such grace and such resilience. They lead with grace.
That’s the singular thread that connects the women, the galvanizing force that keeps gritty hope alive and keeps grace flooding through the decisions made.
The women are resolute.
They are steadfast, doing their best to keep the main thing the main thing. They honor the time they’ve been given, and they are faithful to do good with their hands every day.
They are undaunted, not allowing discouragement to take root. There are hardships, difficult decisions, and seasons where things are simply mundane. But, the women see every season as an opportunity to grow and find value in the lessons learned. They keep their hands open. Yes, one of the definitions of “resolute” is to loosen. And, the women who lead with grace give themselves freedom to explore new ideas, ponder new dreams, and invite new ways of thinking and problem-solving. They demonstrate that hands that are open are best to both give and receive.
In India, Lucy walked away from a convent to open a home for children infected or affected by HIV. In Guatemala, Irene said “yes” to selling everything in order to help change the lives of kids with Down Syndrome. In Jamaica, Miss Mary reluctantly accepted a position at a school for the deaf more than three hours from her home. She became the students’ greatest advocate and friend, working tirelessly for everything from transitional housing to a church where they could worship in their own language.
Even here, in my first-world privilege and comfort, there is no ignoring the weight of the underbelly of oppression. It puts on different skin and walks with bootstrap confidence, but poverty is as thick in gated communities as it is in garbage dumps. The battle is tidier here, more discreet, tucked away from public view or played out in well-edited vignettes. But, it rages, and the whispers of worthlessness never weary. My friends Lisa and Flo see it, feel it, live it. Lisa has transformed her home into a safe place for teen moms. Flo has transformed her impoverished community by caring for kids, seniors, and the homeless. Instead of pondering possibilities, both fix their eyes on Jesus and take the blows for the ones they love.
The women who have taught me to be resolute are themselves still learning as they walk against the weight. Their stories are not static moments in time. No, their stories keep unfolding, and that in itself is garden-hose hope to me. Chapters begin and end, joy and heartache hold each other in a tenderly awkward embrace, and dreams are passed like batons to the ones entrusted to keep walking when we no longer can.
And, we remain resolute.
Yes, I say “we,” because the women have helped me to see that you and I are already women who believe restoration is a reality—even if we don’t yet know how to believe. We are uniquely gifted to lead and serve in ways only women can, and our purpose will continue to unfold throughout our journey. That purpose may not always be something we must find; much more often, it will be something discovered like a gemstone within our very circumstances. That purpose is not defined by our age or heritage. And no one—including you or me—can disqualify us. We can lead with grace.